Sidewalk Festival delighted Detroit’s artistic community for a third year

Arts / Article

Photo: Gabriel Brass Band holding court outside the Old Redford Theatre.

For anyone who holds a perception of Detroit as a city in decline, the scenes from last weekend would have been hard to reconcile. Stepping onto the main drag of Old Redford at the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Lahser Road, one was immediately suffused by the joyful spirit of the Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts, which was awarded a $35,000 grant in the 2014 Detroit Knight Arts Challenge.

To focus overmuch on any given one of the dozens of performers, artists and participants would miss the point of the festival, which has so much to do with the enthusiasm and openness of the attendees. There did not appear to be a single person in the approximately three-block radius of the festival who wasn’t having a great time.

Festivalgoers on Lahser Road.

Set against the backdrop of the Old Redford Theatre, the festival was an idealized portrait of life in Detroit—people of all ages and races, recreating together. Festivalgoers were playing games, enjoying food and shopping from local vendors. They were watching street performers, singers and dance troupes. They were congregating on chairs and sofas set right out in the middle of the street. In total, the event, which was orchestrated by festival Founder and Curator Ryan Myers-Johnson, brought together more than 60 artists.

A dance troupe performing in the round.

“Most of the artists at Sidewalk haven’t gotten much media exposure in their careers, even though they make such good work,” Myers-Johnson said. “We have a few big names, but most are very indie.”

These included Gabriel Brass Band, product of the line of six-generation brass musicians in the Gabriel family, who moved to Detroit from New Orleans in the 1940s; musician Brinae Ali, who creates original compositions through the sounds of tap, song and poetry; Erika Villarreal Bunce, who did an all-day live painting installation outside of JAVA House; and a multitude of others.

The WAWAD Crew.

The Tzarinas of the Plane, following their performance.

Down Art Alley, we uncovered a packed house assembled to watch dance troupes throw down in the largest performance space of all (Sidewalk Festival operates entirely without stages, so the majority of performances are in the round or on the street). This is also where we found the Wire-car Auto Workers Association of Detroit (a collective led by artist Chido Johnson), along with the Tzarinas of the Plane, who turned in a performance dealing with the anticipation of starting something new and the anxiety of making the right choices.

“Sidewalk Festival is the only festival in Detroit that celebrates an eclectic variety of performance and installation art,” said performer Bridget Michael. “The event possesses a vibe of genuine modesty–the same likeness as the neighborhood it’s presented in.”

Games were afoot, including basketball, ping-pong and Giant Jenga.

The preponderance of dance events perhaps reflects Myers-Johnson’s personal practice a dancer, and the multitude of youth-friendly activities—including Giant Jenga, a performance by Mosaic Youth Theatre and free cartoon reels running all day long at the Old Redford Theatre—made for an ebullient weekend celebration, replete with happy families. Kudos to Myers-Johnson and her steadfast corps of volunteers, the artists and performers, and the funding partners for a festival that demonstrates just how idyllic Detroit can be.